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In Peter Nilsson’s classes, students use computers to help them analyze text. Nilsson is an English teacher by training, but he has embraced the “digital humanities,” teaching students how to code to answer questions about books, speeches, news coverage, rap lyrics and more.
One of his students analyzed the text of all presidential inaugural and farewell addresses to identify common and unique themes among them. Another compared the tone and frequency of New York Times coverage of Harvey Weinstein before and after the emergence of the #MeToo movement, by analyzing every word in every article filed under the Times Topic “Harvey Weinstein.” A third explored which rappers most use internal rhyme, by importing lyrics, converting words to phonemes and analyzing from there.
Nilsson teaches at Deerfield Academy, a private school in western Massachusetts. The type of text analysis he guides his students through is far more common in colleges and graduate-school programs, but the coding that makes it possible is an increasingly popular skill to teach children.
Fifteen states now require all high schools to offer computer science courses. Twenty-three states have created K-12 computer science standards. And 40 states plus the District of Columbia allow students to count computer science courses toward high school math or science graduation requirements. That’s up from 12 states in 2013, when Code.org launched, aiming to expand access to computer science in U.S. schools and increase participation among girls and underrepresented minorities in particular. Since then, Code.org has been tracking state policy changes and a number of other metrics about computer science education.
Pat Yongpradit, chief academic officer for Code.org, said Nevada is the only state so far to embed math, science, English language arts and social studies into its computer science standards. (Editor’s note: We have since learned that Virginia also does this.) The standards create a roadmap for teachers to start teaching coding in their classrooms, specifically connecting computer science with what is being taught in the other subjects in the same grade level. For every overlap, teachers have a concrete opportunity to introduce computer science in more traditional subjects.
Not every student is going to graduate from high school and go on to become a computer scientist, but that’s not the point, Yongpradit said.
“You take a biology class in high school not because everyone is going to become a doctor, but because when you go to the doctor, you can understand what they’re talking about,” Yongpradit said.
Nilsson cites a similar motivation for asking kids to code in their English classes. It’s an element of digital literacy, he said.
“When I think about entering a digital future, it’s simply understanding how machines work on a conceptual level and understanding what they can do,” Nilsson said.
Once students take his class, they realize the types of questions they can ask when confronted with massive amounts of data. Maybe they don’t know exactly what code to write to get an answer, but if they know what’s possible, they’re better equipped to figure that out.
Yongpradit has come across a number of lessons in U.S. schools that combine elements of computer science with other subject areas. There are music classes that let students use computer programming to compose songs. There are science classes that let students code their own simulations to explore natural phenomena like chemical reactions, the water cycle or predator/prey systems. An algebra course that uses programming to teach functions and variables has actually been found to improve student understanding of those concepts over traditional math instruction.
“Because they’re able to apply these ideas within a video game-creation context, it just sticks all the better,” Yongpradit said.
Nilsson’s course is rare in that the entire curriculum combines coding and English language arts. Much more common are traditional courses that bring elements of coding into a lesson or two throughout the semester. But maybe that won’t be the case for long.
Initiatives continue to spring up around the country, introducing students to computer science more generally.
The CSforALL movement, for example, aims to bring computer science education to all U.S. students. At its second annual summit conference last week, nearly 300 organizations announced commitments to contribute to this effort, which should lead to new learning opportunities for 47 million students along with 246,000 teachers. Among these commitments is a partnership between the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Quicken Loans Community Fund to create a blueprint for computer science education, the release of an evidence-based K-12 computer science pathway for schools from the National Math and Science Initiative, and commitments from 13 universities across 10 states to create or expand teacher prep courses in computer science.
This story about computer science in high school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.